Why Boston U Isn’t For Me, and Shouldn’t Be For You

April 26, 2015

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East 'T' stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East ‘T’ stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Since my first job working for my father in Manhattan in ’84, I’ve probably done over 200 interviews. By telephone, through Skype or WebEx or Adobe Connect, at conferences and in person. Probably about a third of those interviews have occurred with colleges and universities, for academic and administrator-level positions. For the most part, whether the interviews went well or when I didn’t have my “A-game,” my experiences have been pleasant ones. But, after two different interview processes five years apart with Boston University — one in October ’10, the other last month — there is a higher education institution that I will not work for, will not send my son, and will not recommend for anyone I know, under nearly any circumstances.

There are only a few institutions that have been so bad that they’ve moved from my [expletive] list to my permanently-banned-from-my-life list. Even Carnegie Mellon isn’t on the latter list, and I’ve talked about their conservatism and weirdness around diversity before here. But Boston University’s treatment of me as a potential employee, well, it took my breath away without putting me in an NYPD chokehold.

Round 1, Boston University, August-October 2010

Let me rephrase. I was never a “potential employee,” because on the two occasions I interviewed for jobs there, Boston University in the end treated me as a checkmark interviewee. In the fall of ’10, I emerged for them as a candidate for the director of their Washington, DC program. They interviewed me three times: at the American Political Science Association conference in DC in August, at their old DC program headquarters (while also showing me their new one, still under construction) in September, and in person on the main Boston University campus in late October.

For that last interview, they pulled out all the stops. They flew me in, put me up in a nearby hotel the night before, and even took me to lunch. Of course, they also had someone give me a two-hour guided tour of the campus that morning, after one morning meeting, on a day with thirty mile-per-hour winds coming off the Charles River as we walked from one end of the campus to the other. It’s funny. Up until then, I never thought of a campus tour as sinister. But then I realized, if I’m spending two hours during the heart of the workday doing a campus tour with a twenty-four year-old BU grad in forty-five degree weather, what did that mean for my real chances at that job?

My final meeting was with a professor who advised political science and history major in the DC program. That meeting ended at 5 pm on October 22, with which I knew that they were supposed to make a final decision in a week or so. Despite a thank-you email and two follow-up emails, I didn’t hear from Boston University again until November 29. Roberta Turri Vise, the point person for my interview process, didn’t explain why the final decision took more than five weeks. Nor did she explain why after six weeks of correspondence, no response from my requests were returned by her or anyone else in her office.

Round 2, Boston University, January-March 2015

I decided that this was a one-off thing, that with our generation of job searches occurring in a buyer’s market, that some folks really don’t care about being professionals in their dealing with interviewees. Boy was I wrong! Even in a market where people ignore applicant materials and send mass rejection emails without a candidate’s name on it (or worse, with someone else’s name), Boston University claimed a unique crown.

Hierarchy tree of Boston University's leadership team via the Provost's Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

Hierarchy tree of Boston University’s leadership team via the Provost’s Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

I interviewed with them again in January and at the beginning of March. This was for a position in their provost’s office, a director position managing undergraduate and graduate fellowship opportunities and advising students via those opportunities. The position was a bit beneath my experience, but they seemed interested, and I already knew from some initial research that it was a new position, so I went ahead and applied for it. My first interview was by telephone, with Suzanne Kennedy, the assistant provost for academic affairs at Boston University. It was a pleasant but underwhelming interview, and I actually didn’t expect a call back. So I kept up with my usual work of teaching, consulting, and looking for more consulting opportunities.

I received an email five weeks later asking me to come up to Boston for a second, in-person interview. I gave it the go-ahead, although the length of time between first interview and correspondence concerned me. So too, did my back and forth with Kennedy’s assistant over travel, as she had initially booked me at times that were very inconvenient for interviewing purposes. Not to mention, the major snow issues that Boston experienced in February.

The interview on March 4 was honestly one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had interviewing for any job. I’m including an interview in which I discovered the place was a sweatshop in Chinatown, during my summer of unemployment in New York in ’88. I had three meetings in all, one over lunch with Kennedy, and two with the two associate provosts at Boston University in academic affairs (one undergraduate, one graduate). Over lunch, the conversation was going well, until I asked the question about the level of diversity with applicant pools for Fulbrights, Trumans, Borens, and Rhodes’ scholarships and fellowships. I kid you not, Kennedy’s eyes literally glazed over as soon as I asked about diversity. Keep in mind, I had asked about socioeconomic diversity — I hadn’t touched racial or gender diversity yet. After lunch, I didn’t see Kennedy again for the rest of the interview process.

My second sign came from my third meeting. I met with Timothy Barbari, associate provost for graduate affairs. It was obvious that Barbari hadn’t even looked at my CV before I walked into his office. The first thing Barbari says to me, with him pushing his body into the back of his chair so far that his attempt to be at ease looked more like a rocket revving to take off — “so, you have a rather interesting CV.” I may not have earned all of my money as an academician, but I’ve been around academic-speak long enough to know that interesting can mean a lot of different things, mostly bad. In this context, interesting meant “not straightforward, not linear in progression, not typical in terms of whom we typically hire.”

I was already feeling a bit like a checkmark or token interviewee by the time I left Barbari’s office for Logan. But after USAirways canceled all their flights to DC that evening due to a snowstorm that wouldn’t drop a snowflake for another twelve hours, it got worse. I notified Kennedy through her assistant that I was stuck in Boston overnight from Logan, and left a message the next morning that the Amtrak to DC was my only option, as more flights had been canceled. No word, not even a “I’m sorry that you have to go through this” response. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Friday, nearly a day after I returned to DC, and after a third message about them needing to reimburse me, that I heard from Kennedy’s assistant.

At that point, I wouldn’t have taken the job even if they had offered it to me. As it was, I didn’t hear from Kennedy again until April 7, five weeks after a second interview, and despite a check-in to find out what happened with this director position. It’s this kind of calloused approach that leaves folks shaking their head.

Shaking Off The Dirt

I’ve made a few determinations based on these experiences. For one, if this is the way that treat job candidates who look like me, how well do they pay and treat their service staff, the most vulnerable people on their campus? Not well, at least from what I saw and have experienced. For two, the fact that for both interviews, their top concern seemed to be about competing with “schools across the Charles River” — i.e., Harvard, MIT, Tufts — was somewhere between disconcerting and ridiculous.

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. (JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

The fact that with tuition, books, and room and board it would run the average BU student $60,000 per year also told me what I needed to know. Boston University is a place that wants elite status and elite students, and in pursuit of this Pollyanna goal, wants to hire people they feel fit the bill. As long as those people look like everyone else running the university — mostly White, with a few people of color lightly sprinkled in leading positions at the institution. Because Boston University has what activist Linda Sarsour (Twitter, @lsarsour) calls cosmetic diversity, a genuine attempt at diversity across socioeconomic, racial and gender lines is unnecessary, at least for the powers whom run the institution.

Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., who earned his doctorate in divinity at Boston University in the early 1950s, I’ve known or known of only one person of color with a degree from BU. She was a neighbor at 616 East Lincoln, a few years younger. Based on her description of more than two decades ago, I’d have to say that Boston University has changed for the worst. Like most universities, they seem more interested in prestige and raising money than in fulfilling their mission.

And with that being the case, why send your kid to Boston University? Especially when, for the same amount of money or less, every other school in the Boston area is either better, or at least, cares more about diversity and learning beyond the cosmetic.

A “Living-In” Experiment With My Future Wife

April 22, 2015

Mexican Jalapeno Hot Pockets, April 22, 2015. (http://couponnetworks.net/).

Mexican Jalapeno Hot Pockets, April 22, 2015. (http://couponnetworks.net/).

I met Angelia, my wife of nearly fifteen years, on this date, Earth Night 1990, twenty-five years ago. I’ve known quite a few people longer, and have muses and crushes that seem to go back to the womb. But there’s no one that I learned more about and know better. To think that our one-time friend Bryan Freehling attempted to put his two tallest Black friends together, only for us to not date for five and a half years, and then get married a decade later? Life is a universe of journeys!

This post, though, isn’t about that first meeting between an at-peace but somewhat cocky college junior and a statuesque, hard-working yet weird woman who would’ve been “too much car” for most people in our circles. It’s about after we began to date, after we decided that this relationship of ours was a bit more than just gettin’ our grind on. It was serious by the time I walked down the steps of Thackeray Hall with my Carnegie Mellon PhD degree in my hands, ready to pummel both Joe Trotter and my Mom with the leather case that held it.

That fall, Angelia decided that it was beyond time for her to complete her degree. For as long as I’d known her, she had been a full-time worker and a part-time to no-time student. Angelia had worked at Campos Market Research (where I worked briefly for two weeks before quitting in May ’90), at Atlantic Books, at Blockbuster, really, at anything that could pay bills and help her and her family out while she lived at home in the no-longer-nice section of Homewood in Pittsburgh.

After taking another job with another market research firm in September ’97, Angelia finally went for it. She sent a letter to the University of Pittsburgh’s ombudsman, Ron Slater, to get reinstated at Pitt to finish her degree, as she still owed $3,000 in tuition and other fees from previous semesters, going back seven years. Slater and Pitt did give her the spring semester of ’98 to take some courses while paying down her bill.

“Some courses!” That’s LOL, considering what Angelia did next. She went ahead and registered for six courses that spring in order to finish her degree. Her courses were Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, Saturday morning, and an extension learning course (which meant she decided the pace of her work in that class), in communications, political science, and a general writing course she had to retake from nearly a decade earlier. Keep in mind,Angelia was also working a forty-hour-a-week job recruiting staff and clients for a market research firm while running this gauntlet. I thought she was crazy just for registering for so much.

Overloaded and overwhelmed, November 15, 2011. (http://www.alamy.com; http://theguardian.com).

Overloaded and overwhelmed, November 15, 2011. (http://www.alamy.com; http://theguardian.com).

It turned into a four-month-long experiment in sleep deprivation, bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos, and box after box of Hot Pockets “sandwiches” (with “Lean Pockets, too!”). When I’d see her on Saturday evenings and Sundays, and on the occasional after-class weekday evening, Angelia was almost always ready to go to bed. She kept at it, though, reminding herself that this was her last semester at Pitt, that it was do-or-die.

When April ’98 rolled around, I could tell that Angelia was pretty worn out, especially now that she’d finally started doing the work for her extension course. So I offered to help. From Friday, April 10 through April 24, I essentially moved in with Angelia at her East Liberty flat on North Negley. Only “essentially,” because I did occasionally change clothes or check the mail back at my place, and I still had my own job at Carnegie Library in East Liberty to work. But for a bit more than two weeks, I served as Angelia’s advisor, tutor, professor, boyfriend, and taskmaster.

I tried to keep Angelia on a schedule that would give her about five or six hours a sleep every day, even if it meant a two-hour nap after class and only four hours of sleep at night. By finals week, this week seventeen years ago, even that wasn’t working for Angelia anymore.

That week, I became in charge of the food for the two of us for the first time. I didn’t just throw two Hot Pockets in the microwave for Angelia (I never ate the stuff myself — the broccoli and ham and cheese pocket looked disgusting enough). I started cooking sweet and sour chicken, hamburgers and other, more nutritious food for her to eat. I put her on a full schedule, telling her when to go to work, when to work on her communications papers, when to study for her poli sci exam, read over her papers to tell her what she needed to revise. Managing Angelia became a second job.

Starbucks bottled Frappuccinos, three flavors, April 22, 2015. (http://queenbeecoupons.com/).

Starbucks bottled Frappuccinos, three flavors, April 22, 2015. (http://queenbeecoupons.com/).

She had two papers to finish by the next to last day of finals week, a communications paper for her extensions course, and some dumb paper assignment for her General Writing class. The communications paper was nearly twenty pages. It was done, but it needed a conclusion. After I read it, around 3 am, I woke Angelia up. “You can’t end your paper as if you’re driving over a cliff – you need a conclusion,” I said. Angelia started to cry. ” I’m tired!,” she whined, stretching the word tired out like” tttttiiiiirrrrrr’dddd.” So I worked with her, poured another vanilla Frappuccino down her throat, and talked through her conclusion with her.

When she turned in her two papers that Thursday afternoon, April 23, ’98, I was so proud of Angelia. She was about to be done with her bachelor’s degree, a journey that had taken up thirteen years of her life. After two weeks of living together under emergency circumstances, I knew that I wanted more of that for us. Just not with the boring classes, lack of sleep and processed food. Angelia, to her credit, hasn’t had a Hot Pocket (or a Lean Pocket) since that day, having vomited up one a week after finishing her degree.

Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.

Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year.  I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.

This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.

That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.

I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.

The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.

We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.

The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.

What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.

The Importance of The Great Society, 50 Years Later

April 10, 2015

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

Cartoon about American politics and the economy during the Great Recession, May 9, 2010. (Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (low resolution, relevance to subject matter).

This weekend marks a half-century since President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first series of bills into law that signified his Great Society/War on Poverty work. We won’t hear much about this, though. Not with 2015 being a benchmark year for commemorating and celebrating so much else. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Appomattox at 150, along with President Lincoln’s assassination, Juneteenth, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, ending legal slavery (except for prisoners, of course). The trench warfare of World War I, and the Battle of Gallipoli (if one’s a real war trivia buff). Even the 30th anniversary of Back To The Future and the UN Conference on Women, which gathered in Nairobi, Kenya in the fall of 1985, will likely get more air time, cyber time, and ink than the first of LBJ’s Great Society programs.

But the Great Society was supposed to be a grand experiment and experience. It was supposed to wipe out poverty, end all legal forms of discrimination and segregation, and make the opportunity to achieve the modern American Dream of a middle-class life or better a reality for almost everyone. And it would’ve worked, too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids, um, LBJ’s pesky decisions to go escalate the Vietnam War. The war cost $269 billion in 1970 dollars, or, $1.7 trillion in 2015 money.

What $1 trillion looks like,  January 2012. (http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/ via Elsolet Joubert).

What $1 trillion looks like, January 2012. (http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/ via Elsolet Joubert).

Yet it’s not exactly true that it would’ve worked, or that it didn’t work. You see, despite the best efforts of an elitist, right-wing and ineffectual federal government corrupted by plutocrats and its military-industrial complex, the Great Society programs are still with us. For starters, there’s the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, the first one LBJ signed into law on April 11, fifty years ago on this date.

Without these laws, the modern era of educating millions of children whom states, colleges and universities and local school districts had shut out of K-12 and higher education wouldn’t have occurred at all. With federal government dollars and regulations, not to mention a foundation in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ESEA and HEA in its initial years provided real hope for “an equal opportunity for all.”

This wasn’t and isn’t just about Jim Crow and racial discrimination and segregation, whether de jure in the South or de facto via residential segregation and redlining in cities outsider the South. This became about opening doors for whole classes of children and adults that had been steel-reinforced-concrete walls before.

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (http://aei.org).

Harvard Economics Professor Roland Fryer at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, July 16, 2007. (http://aei.org).

Technocrats and other public education crises gurus of the likes of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Roland Fryer would have us think that the $600 billion that states and the federal government via ESEA spend on public education each year is all wasteful spending. They say that we have about the same number of students in schools today (about 50 million) as we did in 1970.

Of course, they don’t tell the whole story, leaving out a lot of truth for us. For in my lifetime, students with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional) have gone from shutout to included in public schools as part of the Americans with Disabilities Acts of 1989 and 1992, and of course, ESEA. Students with language proficiency issues became part of the public education fabric under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision in 1974, with funds provided out of ESEA. Charter schools, magnet programs, school counseling, and so many other things that have made public education more inclusive and also more expensive wouldn’t have been possible without ESEA. Meaning, technocrats, that public education was severely underfunded and exclusionary prior to 1965.

The HEA hasn’t had the same effect, primarily because we as a society tend to think of higher education as a luxury and not a right, and have fought hard to make many colleges and universities the exclusive domain of “the worthy.” Still, without HEA and the Pell Grants (named after former Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI, 1961-97), the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, the Direct Student Loan Program, and the Supplemental Loan Program, a whole generation of low-income and middle-income families wouldn’t have been able to send their kids to college. They were often the first in their families, as Blacks, as women, as Black and Latino women, as working-class Whites with only a steel mill or automobile plant in their future. At least back then.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master's Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. (http://smmercury.com/). In public domain.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, Master’s Gymnasium, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, November 8, 1965. (http://smmercury.com/). In public domain.

There’s also the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Head Start program, and Congress passing Medicaid and Medicare, providing health coverage for the elderly and deeply poor for the first time. And all in 1965.

What does all of this mean in 2015? That despite the mountains of books written on LBJ and the failures of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, that these programs worked and work in ameliorating poverty and expanding opportunities for all, even across racial lines. Would they have been more effective with more investment, especially in those initial years, when Vietnam became more of a priority? No doubt.

That’s just it, though. Most Americans — who despite the fears of Ted Cruz and Rudy Giuliani, remain White — didn’t care about poverty and racism and the structures that supported it then, and they mostly don’t care now. They want Congress to work, just not on issues that would permanently unbalance the social hierarchy that they’ve assumed as their birthright for two centuries.

Hence the constant one-two punch of a relationship they see with poverty and those with black and brown skin. Hence the constant carping about taxes and needless spending on food stamps and welfare, even though the true face of government assistance in the US has always been a haggard White one. Hence the constant media tropes about hard work and so-called self-made men worth billions making their money without holding a college degree, who somehow can tell the rest of us how to live. The Great Society, for all of LBJ’s foibles and its weaknesses, remains a great legacy of what America could be, and at times, has been, but overall, refuses to be.

Easter Seder 1995

April 8, 2015

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (http://www.timeanddate.com).

Matzo and a cup of wine in a Kiddush cup for first evening of Passover, April 7, 2015. (http://www.timeanddate.com).

Like most of my posts, this is a story of irony, sarcasm and identity. It may be a bit out of time, since the first night of Passover and Easter already occurred last weekend. But it’s still Passover week for those who do more than eat matzos and chicken liver paste with a glass of Manischewitz on the first night.

In all, I have been present, prayed, dined, wined and whined at four Passover Seders. Three of them were during the Hebrew-Israelite years, 1982, 1983, and 1984. All of them involved a roasted leg of lamb, bitter herbs, and chewing down raw horseradish while chugging super-sweet wine to chase away the five-alarm-fire in my mouth, throat and stomach. Endless praises to Yahweh, too many exhortations of Moses, and awkward snorts toward being strangers among strangers in a strange and oppressive land. That was my Passover experience in a lifetime and timeline determined by my Mom and idiot stepfather Maurice, before I turned to Christianity, before I gave up on the idea that I could be from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.

My fourth Seder, though, came eleven years later, in mid-April 1995. I’d been a Christian for as long as I hadn’t commemorated Passover as part of my religious birthright. I wasn’t sure about the idea of attending this celebration, as it wasn’t even at sundown on that year’s first day of Passover, Saturday, April 15. My friend Carl and his/our respective Carnegie Mellon history grad school mates Alan, Jeff, and Susannah were holding their little Seder on Easter Sunday, April 16, as the first two rented a house together in the Point Breeze (really, the White end of Homewood-Brushton, which asked for a race-based divorce in 1961) neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or "Clayton", located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Picture of the Henry Clay Frick Mansion, or “Clayton”, located at 7200 Penn Avenue, Point Breeze, Pittsburgh, PA, March 21, 2010. (Lee Paxton via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

They had invited me a week earlier, a few days before my Spencer Foundation Fellowship application went from no-go to a go. I thought about saying no, but generally, I didn’t do anything on Easter Sundays, anyway. Even as a member of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, the one Sunday I didn’t attend church was Easter Sunday. It the holiest of days, like Passover, and for so many people, the only day all year they attended church. For so many, it was show-off-my-new-spring-clothes day, not Jesus’ Resurrection Day. I didn’t like the overcrowded-ness that came with an Easter Sunday or Christmas service. It smacked of hypocrisy, my own included.

So I decided for one Sunday to attend a Seder prepared by folks who’d only known themselves as Jews both ethnically and religion-wise their whole lives. Except the stern, orthodox, full of bitterness and tears, joy and triumph that were the Seders of my Hebrew-Israelite days was a lighthearted affair. It was as unorthodox a Seder as could’ve expected, with lots of conversation about grad school, about my dissertation fellowship, about life and sports and music in general. No raw horseradish, but lots of chicken liver paste. No Manischewitz, but some Mogen David, along with more traditional red and white wines, and an empty seat for Elijah.

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (http://tabletmag.com/).

Manischewitz wine, in bottle and a wine glass, September 11, 2012. (http://tabletmag.com/).

Carl and Alan, of course, expressed surprise when I did ask questions or make comments. Like about the kosher-ness of eating mashed-up chicken livers, or the differences in taste between the traditional Pesach beverages, or how peanut butter and jelly went well with matzo crackers. Alan, about to be a one-year-and-done CMU history doctoral student, did ask me, “Where did you learn about Passover?” I said, “This is my fourth Seder.”

I knew better than to fully unlock everything I knew about Pesach, Judaism, Jewish history, the Ten Lost Tribes, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and the racial privileging that I had observed growing up in Mount Vernon between “real” Jews and us “weird” (read “not White”) Jews. For a few hours, though, I had to confront a part of my past that I’d all but locked away by the beginning of ’90. Not just locked away. I’d taken everything from between April 13, ’81 and July 23, ’89, wrapped it in Saran Wrap, put that in a Ziploc bag, thrown it in a safe, locked it, and then built a force field to keep out intruders.

I was relieved when I finally left Carl and Alan’s Easter Sunday/Passover Seder and walked back to my apartment in East Liberty. I wasn’t ready yet to take a look back at what I lived through during the Reagan Years. I was all about moving forward, and the previous days and weeks of dissertation research followed by a major-league dissertation fellowship made me feel like the completely different person that I believed I actually was. At least ninety-five percent of the time.

Fake Booms, or a Tide That Raises a Few Yachts

April 2, 2015

"Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind" cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

“Rising Tide Leaves Workers Behind” cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 5, 2006. (R.J. Matson). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and relevance to topic.

It’s been a week and a half since my last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with other projects. Kind of like the American aristocracy, as they continue to distract us plebes with controversies over “religious freedom” laws and undisclosed emails while continuing to hoard trillions in wealth.

Not that these controversies are just abstract distractions, but they follow a pattern of division, deception, and misdirection. Our nation’s elite impose their views of the country and the world in such a way as the truth itself becomes a lie. Apparently for them, the First Amendment to the US Constitution’s a lie, since this first of these Bill of Rights guarantees “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Establishment Clause has NEVER been absolute, especially in cases in which religious practice violates or interferes with others’ civil and constitutional rights.

Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America's Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/).

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam via Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings (1508-1512), with America’s Prosperity Gospel stuck in between, September, 2009. (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/).

But for the purposes of my post today, this truth-as-lie isn’t the biggest one the American plutocracy has pulled on us in the past forty years. Not even close. You see, the biggest lie they’ve sold us as truth is the idea that the US has been going through bust and boom cycles as normal for any wealthy capitalist democracy since the 1970s. That with every recession, or period of inflation, or deflation, or job stagnation, or changes in the economy, that a period of unbridled growth and social mobility has followed, keeping the American middle class the richest of the middle classes on Earth, indeed, in the history of the world!

Let’s start with the reality that median income has declined enough to show evidence of a shrinking American middle class. This decline isn’t a recent phenomenon. Since the end of World War II, there have been two lengthy patterns. One is a pattern of great economic growth, coinciding with America’s dominance of the global economy between 1945 and 1973. This growth of median income by a factor of six (from $2,379 in 1945 to $12,050 in 1973) was a reflection of the US economy’s glory years. The other is the current pattern of a slow, sometimes meandering but steady decline of economic dominance. All during a period of greater competition from Europe and Asia, job outsourcing, and a reduced industrial base, the last the heart of America’s economic growth before 1973.

Median Income Since 1945, Calculated in Actual/2013 Dollars


Median Income

Median Income in 2013 $






















Sources: US Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-002, P60-043, P60-097 , P60-146, P60-188, P60-226, P60-245, Consumer Income (now Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage): 1948, 1964, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2004, 2013. (http://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/ and http://www.census.gov/prod/). Calculations based on CPI Inflation Calculator via the Bureau of Labor Statistics and DollarTimes.com, using 2013 as the most recent calendar year baseline (http://data.bls.gov/ and http://www.dollartimes.com/).

Median income in 1973 was 20.1 percent higher ($65,000) than it is today ($52,000). In the intervening years, median income never grew enough to match or exceed the growth that occurred during the peak of the middle class’ development. Not in the years after the double-dip recession of the early 1980s. Not even after the Information Revolution under the business and credit-friendly Clinton years of the 1990s.

The dot.com boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (http://www.sf-info.org/).

The dot.com boom-turned-bust, April 2, 2015. (http://www.sf-info.org/).

Keep in mind, too, that the 400 wealthiest households in the wealthiest nation of all time hold a net worth that exceeds the net worth of the bottom fifty percent of all US households. It’s simple math, really — 400 > ~100,000,000 households or roughly 155 million people with kids and other relatives. Or, $1.5 trillion for 400 > $1.4 trillion for 155,000,000.

The best measure the US currently has for different socioeconomic classes that isn’t from a complex university study or an ideological think-tank is the experimental Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed jointly by the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The AP and dozens of other news outlets first reported the use of the SPM after the two agencies developed a report on Americans in poverty and with low-income with it in November 2011. Taking into account tax credits, non-cash benefits (e.g., SNAP or food stamps), out-of-pocket medical expenses, and other in-kind contributions, the Census and BLS constructed a Ratio of Income/Resource to Poverty matrix that accounted for both the official calculations of poverty (which the federal government originally developed in 1964) and calculations done with the SPM. The news media headlined the December 2011 results with “1 in 2 People Are Poor or Low-Income.”

As sobering as this is, it’s not the whole story, not for those Americans working under the assumption that they are middle class. According to the Census’ latest report using the SPM (November 2013), 16 percent of Americans (49.7 million) live at or below the poverty threshold of $23,000 in income/resources per year, while another 31.2 percent (97.1 million) have at most $46,000 a year in income/resources, fitting the SPM definition of low-income. Another 107.6 million Americans have incomes/resources that are between two and four times the national poverty threshold (or between $46,000 and $92,000 in total resources per year), while the top 56.6 million of Americans (18.2 percent) have annual incomes/resources above $92,000.

Large saline and silicone breast implants -- could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), dot.com boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (http://medcitynews.com).

Large saline and silicone breast implants — could easily be, housing boom (1999-2008), dot.com boom (1994-2001), credit boom (1973-?), April 2, 2015. (http://medcitynews.com).

There are two really simple reasons why most Americans don’t see the plutocratic lie of “prosperity for everyone” despite all evidence of the truth. One is because they believe in that dangled carrot of somehow becoming rich, through hard work, prayer, giving out of need, or sheer luck, despite the debt it takes to remain even somewhat middle class. Two is because most believe they’re prospering whenever the Dow Jones’ Industrial Average breaks 10,000 or 15,000, or because the media faithfully reports monthly declines in unemployment, or because the average White family has a net worth that’s eight times that of Black and Latino families.

And those beliefs are reinforced by the societal taboo of rarely, if ever, talking about our income, our net worth or lack thereof, by acting as if the poverty or prosperity conversation violates the US Constitution. Without this serious conversation, how can we really claim that any tide of economic prosperity has lifted any boats other than those of the yacht-owning set since 1973?


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